June 17, 1880– Carl Van Vechten:
“There are two kinds of people in this world, those who long to be understood and those who long to be misunderstood. It is the irony of life that neither is gratified.“
Harlem at the start of the 20th Century was THE place for African-Americans. There was nowhere else with so large an area populated almost entirely by black people. Harlem was a Mecca for energetic, artistically gifted young people.
After World War I, the African-American community pushed against Prohibition and white racism with their own self-conscious pride and militancy. Black soldiers had been treated with respect and near equality while serving in the military in Europe, and their experiences influenced their expectations when they returned home. Participation in the war effort had provided the black community with a sense of involvement in the mainstream of American life.
The rise of Black Pride came at the same time as a surge of interest in African-American culture by a lot of white people. They listened to the jazz of Duke Ellington and Fats Waller. The Charleston and Black Bottom dances, previously limited to the jazz clubs, became national crazes. Shuffle Along, an all-black musical, was a smash success on Broadway. White writers were using racial relations as serious subject matter.
This interest in “Negro Culture” brought a huge influx of white people to Harlem’s nightclubs. Who can blame them? The Cotton Club was packed nightly with white people drinking bootleg booze while watching talented black entertainers. A trip to Harlem represented an escape to an exotic land where the locals were uninhibited, passionate and demonstrative, plus it was just a short cab ride away.
The person primarily responsible for all those white thrill-seekers traveling to Harlem was tall, blond writer/photographer Carl Van Vechten, who briefly brought together the very different worlds of Uptown Black Harlem and Downtown White people.
He was also a witty, talented, married guy who shamelessly engaged in liaisons with men.
At the University of Chicago, he studied Music, Art and Opera. After graduating in 1903, Van Vechten was hired as a columnist for the Chicago American newspaper. In his column The Chaperone, Van Vechten wrote about the popular culture, gossip and criticism. He occasionally included photographs with his column.
Van Vechten was fired from the paper for what was described as an elaborate and complicated style of writing, and for “…lowering the tone of the Hearst papers”.
In 1906, he moved to NYC where he was hired as a music critic at The New York Times. He took a leave of absence from the paper in 1907, to live in Europe and explore the world of opera.
While in Europe, he married his long-time friend from his hometown of Cedar Rapids, Anna Snyder. He returned to the New York Times in 1909, where he became the first American critic of Modern Dance. He championed the Avant-Garde art and wrote about dance greats such as Anna Pavola and Isadora Duncan.
He also attended premiers in Paris where he became a devoted friend of American Gertrude Stein. They corresponded for the remainder of Stein’s life, and when she died, he was appointed her literary executor, instead of her partner Alice B. Toklas. Van Vechten had printed her unpublished writings, and a collection of their letters to each other. He introduced Americans to the works of gay writer Ronald Firbank and Stein. As an influential critic, he helped launch the careers of many talented African-Americans.
Of Stein’s rather difficult work, Van Vechten wrote:
“Special writers require special readers.“
He divorced Snyder in 1912 and married actor Fania Marinoff in 1914. Van Vechten and Marinoff ignored the social separation of races during the era and freely invited black people to their home for dinners and parties and attended public events for African-Americans. Van Vechten frequented the Harlem nightclubs and bars, becoming a regular. He made friends with a lot of the African-American artistic types in the neighborhood. His many friends included: George Gershwin, Paul Robeson, Ethel Waters, Langston Hughes, Somerset Maugham, Salvador Dalí, and Zora Neale Hurston.
Van Vechten’s marriage to Marinoff, lasted for 50 years, yet there were arguments between them over Van Vechten’s many affairs with men, especially his relationship with Mark Lutz.
Lutz was a model for some of Van Vechten’s earliest experiments with photography. Their romance lasted until the end Van Vechten’s life. When Lutz died, as per his wishes, his correspondence with Van Vechten, more than 10,000 letters, was destroyed. Lutz donated his collection of Van Vechten’s photographs to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where you can see them today.
Van Vechten’s string of sexual relationships with guys was an open secret during his lifetime.
In the 1920s he produced a series of novels that were sparkling, frothy, and very, very camp. Van Vechten’s novels became popular with queer people of the era who felt a kindred spirit in his preciousness.
Van Vechten published a scandalous novel, horrifyingly, but naively, titled Nigger Heaven (1926), which told the tragic love story of a black male writer and his Harlem girlfriend. It was intended to give a sympathetic view of Harlem life and its residents, but most Harlem folks were outraged. Yet, white readers had the opposite reaction, and the novel quickly became a big bestseller. After reading it, white New Yorkers hurried to Harlem to see it in person. By the way, that ugly title refers to the upper-balcony seating that African-Americans were relegated to in theaters during this era.
Van Vechten’s tastes were varied, besides his novels, columns and reviews, he wrote an erudite cultural history of the house cat.
The American Jazz Age was a time when LGBTQ people began to acquire a world of their own. Greenwich Village and Harlem were at the epicenter of Gay NYC. The gay life was not only tolerated, it became chic. Harlem was attractive to Van Vechten because it was a point of fusion for his gayness, his fascination with blackness, and his natural voyeurism.
Debonair songwriter Porter Grainger, composer of the great blues classic T’aint Nobody’s Bizness, was openly a Van Vechten boyfriend, and so was controversial writer Richard Wright (Native Son, Black Boy). Grainger was totally open about being gay and Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes was embraced by the Harlem community. Several influential figures in Harlem were queer, and this was mostly ignored by the neighborhood.
Van Vechten also promoted African-American culture with his photography. His provocative, homoerotic photographs taken from 1932 until his passing in 1964, documented major African-American figures in the American arts. He became an accomplished portrait photographer of the famous, shooting notable figures as diverse as Josephine Baker, Salvador Dalí and Gloria Vanderbilt. He shot just about every major artistic figure of his era.
He published seven novels and continued to write articles on black music and art. An essay Negro Blues Singers was published in Vanity Fair in 1926. Van Vechten was convinced that African-American culture was the very essence of “American”. His simultaneous fascination with black writers, artists and musicians, and the avant-garde, helped change many white people’s mindsets.
He celebrated a new cultural sensibility that promoted the importance of the individual, sexual freedom, and racial tolerance, plus he dared to put the Blues with the same consideration as Beethoven.
The Library of Congress has a huge collection of his photographs. There is also a collection of Van Vechten’s photographs in the Smithsonian‘s Archives of American Art, Fisk University, Museum of the City of New York, Brandeis University, George Gershwin Memorial Collection of Music and Musical Literature, and London’s The National Portrait Gallery.
Van Vechten died in 1964. He was 84 years old when he left. His ashes were scattered over Shakespeare Gardens in Central Park. After all his considerable accomplishments, Van Vechten remains that white guy who insisted on publishing a novel titled Nigger Heaven.